This week someone asked me what I missed down here, it’s a pretty easy list of things really. Friends, family, real milk in my tea, Christmas, grass, trees, hills. Tonnes of stuff. There’s a lot to miss when your 15,000 miles away in a frozen wasteland. I was also asked what the good bits were that made up for the things I miss. Now that’s harder to put into words. This place is amazing, beautiful and quite often almost magical. But it’s hard to explain about it all, even with pictures. This week we had a storm. Seventy mile per hour winds laden with snow and ice, when you’re outside you can hardly stand and you feel like your face is going to be sanded off. But looked at through the windows of the station the landscape looks as if it is alive. The wind blows the snow and ice across the ground like it’s a living thing. It is like watching a huge mass of microscopic white insects marching across the ground, all moving together in the way a giant flock of starlings would. It’s like the mist from dry ice or some other heavier than air gas, it flows along the ground, but here it looks like it has a purpose and moves where it wants to. Sometimes swirling, sometimes heading off into the distance. Got some nice pictures of the sunset but it doesn’t show whats going on and I can’t upload video.
It’s virtually impossible to take a picture of this to show you how it looks, but when the sun is setting and you see this out of the window it is breathtaking.
Add to this diamond dust – microscopic ice crystals suspended in the air that catch the sun with a flash and you have something that really does look and feel magical. Again though, this is not something you can catch well on a camera. Got a few shots of a little bit of glitter in the air, once with a sun pillar and halo behind.
Everyday I walk down the corridor and through each window I pass is a view that most people would be lucky to see once in a lifetime. I get it everyday, and each time it’s different. There are sunsets that light up the whole sky, turning it pink and red and blue.
On clear days you can see for what seems like thousands of miles, Seeing the continent in the distance, from where it meets the ice shelf that we are sat on, rising up hundreds of meters towards the antarctic plateau. Or sometimes seeing mountains and icebergs hundreds of feet tall on the horizon – none of which are really there, just reflections shining in the distance. The weather does strange things down here. Sun-dogs, halos, columns of light can just appear in the sky. One minute you might be able to see everything in perfect clarity and then the next the contrast will go and everything looks white. Contrast is a hard one to explain, looking at the ice with perfect contrast you can see every bump and ridge in the ice all around you, you can see footprints or vehicle tracks and see the little ice crystals glinting in the sun. When the contrast goes this detail all goes with it. You can be riding along on a skidoo and not know you are moving because the ground all around you is perfectly still and white, like a piece of A4 paper. This can be quite a hazard moving around. You can drive into a ditch or snow drift without even seeing it if you’re not careful. (I’ve not done the ditch, or worse a crevasse, yet, but I did drive straight into a snow drift and had to dig myself out!). When stood at the top of the steps at the entrance to the base, or just looking out of the bedroom window when it’s like this then it’s like you’re looking out of the window of some giant aircraft, staring out across what, now, doesn’t look like land at all, but instead looks like gently shifting clouds. If it’s a cloudy day then there is no horizon at all, just you and the base floating above and inside brilliant white clouds. When the sky is clear then the horizon becomes indistinct, with the blue of the sky smudged into the white of the ice like a water-colour painting. Sometimes the sky, or bits of cloud will turn iridescent, a cloud will appear for a moment with the look of oil in water, with the colours of the spectrum slightly mixed but all present, like the cloud liked the idea of a rainbow but didn’t like the stripes.
Lack of contrast is not the same as lack of visibility, you can see for miles but you just can’t distinguish anything. When the visibility goes you just can’t see at all. This is when the wind gets up, or snow comes and the air is just full of ice and snow. You can see a few metres in front of you but that’s about it, this is the time to stay inside, be it on base or in a tent. One false move or step away from safety and you might never find where you want to be again. But again, watching this, as dangerous as it can be, is pretty amazing. I’ll spare you the shots of a white-out though, there’s not much to see! This is what it looks like when it calms down a bit though.
I mentioned the sunsets. We are getting them now which is nice because we went without for quite a while, and in a few short months will do again when the sun disappears completely, though then I’ll have the stars and the night sky to stare in wonder at. I saw the stars this week but it was nothing like any night sky I’ve seen before. We still don’t get what you would think of as a night sky here yet. The sun has been setting for a month now but we still don’t have night. At first we’d just see the sun go below the horizon and the whole sky would turn a reddish pink before the sun came back. Now the sun is gone for quite a while but instead of a deep black sky we get a darker blue. Sort of like the sky would look like during the day but you were 50,000 meters higher up and nearer to space. Deep blue but you can still see the stars, or the brighter ones at least. Not sure what they all are down here, the constellations and stars I know now have a planet in-between me and them. Plenty of time to learn though. I saw the moon in what is not quite a night sky too this week, it’s visible a lot during the day and looks bigger and brighter than it does at home but it was nice to see it in its natural element (almost).
When there has been a period of high winds and snow, or a blow as we call it down here, it leaves its mark on the landscape afterwards. The surface of the ice is added to by the snow but at the same time scoured by the wind and ice, leaving it marked with features. The ice looks like brilliant white sedimentary rock, with separate layers laid down and then eroded away. This rocky looking surface is left glistening in the sun with the ice crystals embedded in it. Anything higher than the surface of the ice down here will end up with snow piling up in front and behind it. With the buildings and the base itself the snow can accumulate to form huge windtails that stretch out tens of meters, small hills are all around the site and these will continue to grow over the year, along with the whole surface of the ice shelf, which will get higher too, leaving the buildings deep down in holes in the snow, ready to be lifted, pulled or jacked out next summer season. The accumulated ice freezes in place when the wind stops, leaving it hard, making it seem even more like a rocky sandstone desert. When you walk on it the noise, instead of the muted squeaky crunch you get from walking on snow back home, is louder, echoing for metres all around you, it’s like walking on porcelain.
This frozen, 300 metre thick shelf floating on this part of the southern ocean is so completely different that you can’t really explain what it’s like. The fact that it is constantly changing from one state to another, some of which I’ve tried to describe, mean its hard to keep up. There’ll be other things I’ll ramble on about – when the milky way or the southern lights appear I’ll be losing my mind. There’ll be other things that make up for the things you miss. But one of them, close to the top of the list, is just looking out of your window. Even though you get used to it, like you get used to the cold, you never quite begin to take it for granted, because it just wont let you. You have to think about what it is you are looking at least once a day, you can’t just walk past a window and think “yeah, that’s a nice sunset” or “cool, a halo” because there’s no getting away from the fact that what you are looking at is just full-on, other-worldly beautiful and you are one of a relative handful of people ever to see it.
Anyway, more pictures of funky views from my house including my personal favourite, a sun pillar, where the sun appears to have decided to just pour itself out onto the floor.
Some of the pictures aint the best quality but the internets are playing up more than normal, so more pictures to come and more looking more better, web speed means I often don’t see spelling mistakes for about a week after I’ve posted something so forgive me for that too.